Czechs rally against political leaders on eve of Velvet Revolution anniversary

By Jan Lopatka
Anti-government protest in Prague

By Jan Lopatka

PRAGUE (Reuters) - Around a quarter million Czechs rallied against the prime minister and president on Saturday over concerns the pair are chipping away at democracy in the deeply divided nation celebrating the 30th anniversary of the Velvet Revolution.

Protesters from around the nation of 10.7 million filled Prague's Letna park, waving Czech and EU flags at the site of the biggest rallies in November 1989 when communist rule in Czechoslovakia crumbled peacefully weeks after the Berlin Wall fell.

Many in the crowd chanted "we are here," echoing the cry from 30 years ago during the protests that propelled Vaclav Havel into office.

Organizers want Prime Minister Andrej Babis to sever ties to his Agrofert business they say represents a conflict of interest, or step down by the end of the year.

Babis -- a billionaire businessman -- has said he has resolved any issues by moving his assets to trust funds.

“Some of our politicians do not understand why we are here. Others do not want to spoil the holidays," said Benjamin Roll, vice chairman of the Million Moments for Democracy Association, which organized the protest. "The struggle for freedom and democracy never ends."

The speakers, including former dissidents who spoke at the 1989 rallies, said Babis and President Milos Zeman were unfit for office. Police estimated the crowd at 200,000 while organizers pegged the turnout at 250,000.

Babis and his populist ANO party remain by far the most popular but also the most divisive political force due to the businessman's background before 1989 when he was a Communist party member and had contacts with the secret police.

Zeman, who has fostered warmer relations with Russia and China, described the protests as undemocratic because they fail to respect a decision to drop fraud charges against Babis and parliament's rejection of calls for his own impeachment.

"I would like to note that Andrej Babis had 1.5 million votes in an election and I had 2.85 million votes," Zeman said in an interview for news website ParlamentniListy.cz. "Against that the participation at Letna is a small fraction."

A quarter million Czechs protested in June when a new justice minister was brought in as Babis faced a criminal investigation over subsidy fraud. While state prosecutors dropped that probe, the European Commission is looking into Babis for potential conflicts of interest related to farm subsidies.

Both Zeman and Babis have kept a low profile in the lead up to the 30-year anniversary of the Velvet Revolution on November 17, which will feature events around the city and a reenactment of the student protest in 1989 that sparked the wider rallies.


(Writing by Michael Kahn, Editing by Clelia Oziel)